From foster care to youth advocate

After passing though more foster homes than he can count, Albuquerque man works to help others

Mars Garcia spent most of his life in foster care.

Now 24, he works as a security guard at the Albuquerque International Sunport, and in his spare time advocates for foster youth at NMCAN, an Albuquerque group that works to empower kids in state custody.

Garcia was born in Mexico. When he was two weeks old, his father killed his mother and then himself. Three years later, he moved in with his grandmother in Las Cruces.

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A year later, staff at his preschool started noticing unexplained bruises. They worried he was being abused at home.

They were right. Garcia’s uncle, a regular visitor to the house, was sexually abusing him. Garcia says that when he reported it to his grandmother, she refused to believe him and began beating him.

One day, a stranger arrived at his preschool and took him away. It was a state social worker, assigned to remove him from his grandmother’s custody and place him with a foster family. Garcia would spend the rest of his childhood in foster homes — some for months at a time, others for just a few days — until the day he aged out of the system six years ago.

Q: What was it like to be picked up by a stranger and removed to a foster home?

A: I remember crying and feeling really scared and saying that I wanted my grandma.

Q: Do you remember that first family?

A: I remember them one day piercing my ears — I had seen my older foster sister with pierced ears and I was like, “I want that!” But my grandma found out and she was really pissed off that they pierced my ears without her permission, so she put in a request to change my foster home. After that I was in treatment foster homes practically all my life.

Q: How many were there?

A: Over 500. In 14 years.

Q: Over 500? Are you serious?

A: That’s what my social worker told me when I turned 18. She said it was a record.

Q: Why treatment foster homes? After all, they’re reserved for the most difficult and traumatized kids?

A: I never found out.

Q: Did anyone ever explain why you kept getting moved from one home to another?

A: Sometimes I would think I was doing good. And I’d come after school and have my stuff packed in trash bags, ready for another home. It really bummed me out, thinking that I was doing good, and turns out that it just wasn’t working out.

Q: Were there any good experiences?

A: Oh yeah. From what I remember, I had probably like 20 good foster homes.

I had one foster home back when I was eight, they would buy me new clothes, I was able to eat at the dinner table with everyone else. I actually got to experience eating my first black olives with them, and I couldn’t stop eating them that night.

And then I had one, back when I was 15, they taught me a lot of stuff. They used to take me everywhere with them. They took me to Las Vegas, NV, when they were supposed to go on their honeymoon.

Don Usner / Searchlight New Mexico.

Don Usner / Searchlight New Mexico.

Q: And the bad places?

A: I got abused a lot. There was one family I’ll never forget, they used to smack me on my mouth with rubber bands. So I have scars on the top of my lips…They would starve me. I had another foster parent who had her son force medicine down my throat to put me to sleep, because when she had visitors at the house I had to be asleep.

Q: When something like that happened, did you ask CYFD or the treatment foster care company for help?

A: I asked maybe five times, and I told them exactly what was happening. And then finally when I was 6, I stopped telling people what was going on in the home because nobody was believing me.

Q: Why do you think they didn’t believe you?

A: There’s a stigma to being in foster care. I remember one time when I was younger I was trying to play with the neighborhood kids, and the kids started bullying me and laughing at me because I was a foster kid. They would tell me that I was a troublemaker and that it was my fault that I was in foster care..

Q: What happened when you turned 18 and aged out of the system?

A: It was kind of heartbreaking. I was glad to be out of foster care, but I didn’t know where I was going to go. Foster care was just what I grew up knowing, so I didn’t really plan for what came after.

Right after I turned 18 I went to a transitional living program, but I was only there a week and a half before I just left. I didn’t want to be part of a state system anymore. I went to my biological great grandma’s house [in Las Cruces]. I stayed there for two weeks until she hit me.

Q: Was that when you came back to Albuquerque?

A: My old social worker ended up picking me up. She took time off [from work], came to pick me up and drove me all the way to Albuquerque where I got into an assisted living place with a company called New Day. They helped me learn how to budget and get my own apartment.

Q: Is that where you met your wife?

A: It’s funny, we actually met when we were younger, in a treatment center in Las Cruces.

Mars Garcia and his wife at home. Don Usner / Searchlight New Mexico.

Mars Garcia and his wife at home. Don Usner / Searchlight New Mexico.

Q: And now you’re a dad. How did growing up in foster care affect the way you raise your three children?

A: It was tough at first, because what I learned in foster care was beatings and abuse, getting my stuff taken away as punishment. My wife has taught me that it’s okay to feel that way and to have those thoughts, but she’s also taught me to communicate so she can help me out.

My wife has also taught me how to discipline them properly, without yelling or getting mad at them. They’re just kids, they’re going to want to be kids and play, and sometimes cut up.

I didn’t have that kind of childhood but I can make it happen with these guys.

Top photo: Don Usner / Searchlight New Mexico.